the temptation of conceiving the void

John Colburn

1.

Coming back from their leisure hour, the sisters caught a wet ghost and buried it in a grass-lined pit, then waited for its prophecy.

Softly, inside himself, the ghost laughed and continued through our senses, free of karmic turbulence.

It floated in its secret dimension, without urgency, without logic or psychoanalysis or exams.

In comparison I was like a nerve, pulsed by the slightest current of thought around and around the smooth land near the central road.

The sisters might be semifluid, might be polaroid or nuclear. Remember when the sisters returned from the dead with a green fog variously flowing in either direction of time? Any direction, they corrected me.

“What is going on inside the ghost?” the shorter sister asked when they saw me.

I put my hand into a trance and it felt around.

My hand remembered that we once killed the secret part of the sky inside each other, for food. My hand seemed distracted.

“I can’t tell you now—the ghost just hired me to flutter around,” I said.

The sisters became gritty as wild spinach mixed with soot.

I just kept crossing their lines.

2.

I was taken to see the headmaster. His chambers oozed with ghosts, some of them nothing but names now.

And what did I used to be?

A delinquent.

A soldier, briefly.

A kid smoking a cigarette behind the gas station, before school.

Now will you love me, headmaster? Or do you have to love everyone? Are you perfect?

The cold names all around, letter pressing.

The sisters watched from afar like a pair of albatrosses.

I turned in my chair when the door latch clicked open. A metal sound, a twentieth century sound. The headmasters walked past and I smelled him. Cologne and cereal. He sat without looking up. Opened a dark file of bright papers and shuffled through them.

I am an emanation from those papers, I thought, a spirit projected from facts.

The headmaster cleared his throat and tapped the eraser of his pencil onto a desk calendar. The room formed a cube of attention. Watch out for time in this room, I thought.

“You were on the road,” said the headmaster, “and now you’re here.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I’m walking.”

“To where are you walking?”

“Home.”

“You have one?” the headmaster asked, with surprise.

“Many. But I’m just going to one.”

The headmaster smirked. I realized I had given in to my base impulses and strafed his passive position. Now he could accuse me. I had been identified as having acted in a contradictory fashion for no reason beyond agitation.

The mahogany shone fake. The headmaster put his fake finger to his fake temple, considering me.

“I want you to go away,” he said.

We were ghosts of no consequence, except our power over each other.

“And there will you love me like plastic loves a beach?” I asked.

The headmaster swiveled in his chair and watched the passing clouds. He was through with me.

3.

A light snow had just dusted the sidewalks and some crows were hanging around in a pine tree. I decided to go for a walk. I walked for several blocks, and I saw a lot of people I knew, but I didn’t acknowledge them. Not even a wave. Our school was a bit too friendly, I thought.

Later I saw more crows in another pine tree. Or they may have been the same crows. Or I had been walking in a circle through the neighborhoods.

“Excuse me,” I said to a woman passing. She was pulling a little two-wheeled cart, filled with groceries. “I think I’m lost,” I said.

“No,” she said, and smiled at me, “you’re not lost. You’re dead.”

I was furious. If I said I was lost, then I was lost. What right did she have to contradict me?

I walked over to the Science House. I knew they still had my staple gun.

Sister Caroline was outside.

“Excuse me," I said. “I think I’m lost.”

She pulled a knife from her shopping bag. “Don’t try anything funny,” she said.

“Like what?” I asked, arms at my side and palms up.

“Like trying to explain black holes. Can light actually pass through a black hole, or does it disappear forever?”

“You told me not to explain.”

“Just like I thought,” she said. “A faker. A poser.”

“Can I have my staple gun back?”

“In hell,” she said, and spat on the ground.

I looked around. The snow had mostly melted. Now the crows overhead seemed restless. I didn’t recognize anyone, or anything. I thought I heard the call of a hyena. The sound grew closer and closer.

“Just try coming back from the dead,” she said. “Try dragging me into the underworld.”

4.

I was sent back to the headmaster. He sat at his desk, measuring out powder in grams.

“The last leaves flicker,” I said, gesturing toward the window.

He did not look up. He concentrated on each gram, squinting.

“I’m sorry. Each gram is like a different reality.” He wore the same once-regal black clothes.

“It’s maybe just the fragmented beginning of a single reality, like the universe?”

He paused at the measurements and frowned. “Watch my hand,” he said. “With it I wave you away.”

“I’m not watching it,” I said and looked out the window.

I felt disruption in subject/object distinction, which he seemed to feel too.

“I’m tempted,” I said.

“Nope.” He looked at me. “There’s going to be a figure.”

“But just a momentary, internal glimpse.”

He shook his head and sighed, still looking down at the powder. “You can’t do it.”

“But if I did.”

The headmaster smiled. “Divine shapes are everywhere. Grain by grain, that which is hidden begins to surface.” He had nearly measured all the powder. “The place one imagines from. It always feels like a French place to me,” he said and smiled.

“The French void.”

“Don’t you start.”

“The Moroccan void.”

“Stop saying the word.”

“The Babylonian void.”

“I wave you away.” He gestured with his free hand.

“The same emptiness. The unifying field.”

“The body,” he said, looking up over his glasses, “is a token.” He held a tiny grain, a crystal shard, up to the windowlight with a pair of tweezers. “These are the last leaves, yes.”

“Then what?” I could hear water trickling somewhere nearby.

“It has no end.” He carefully placed the shard onto the bed of the scale.

I sighed and shrugged. “It has no beginning. We dangle like ropes.”

He shrugged as well. “That’s fine.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s fine.” He handed me a gram in a small vial. A bird passed, darkening the window, then the room brightened.

5.

The sisters asked me once again to address their ghost.

I knelt before the pit. The gram worked its way through and I stared, ghost ready. Radios sculpted their reality from seemingly plain air. The light, the pale start of winter, the limping mothers at the end of long gravel driveways. I called out, again and again.

The ghost would not answer so I turned inward.

My heart scabbed over with cold. I felt like a melon. I wandered the fencelines. Mules talked; spirits appeared on saddles. People dressed as people.

The ghost would not discharge even a flake of its life. I checked every mote that shone. Strange, distant lights shot up.

I called to the sisters. “Things are getting blurry,” I told them. “This ghost might have died and become another ghost somewhere.”

The sisters sighed. “You ruin everything,” the tall one said.

I looked in my consciousness for the gram. It sang from a far-off pit, deep inside. Faint songs of life and death. I felt the old temptation.

When I came out the sisters could see it; they could see everything in their starry eyes. “The void is never an emergency,” one said.

I started walking toward town. I saw more crows. I patted my own arm. I was there.

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John Colburn is the author of four books, most recently unabandonment (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021). He lives in St. Paul, MN and is one of the publishers/editors in the Spout Press collective.